If you think of brandy as something your grandfather drank, than you may want to talk to Ken Andrus of Fresno.
Andrus, a retired pharmacist, has channeled his passion for wine into crafting an award-winning brandy that is gaining fans throughout the Fresno area.
Velvet Night Brandy, Batch No. 1, received a bronze medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in the American grape brandy category.
It’s served in some of the region’s finest restaurants, including Cracked Pepper Bistro, Max’s Bistro/Bar, The Lime Lite Restaurant and Lounge, The Manhattan and Mad Duck. In Visalia it’s at The Vintage Press, and in Madera at The Vineyard Restaurant.
The brandy that features a black and gold label on a sleek bottle sells for $55.
Hard to imagine that Andrus launched his distilled spirits voyage in early 2012 using a $99 water purifier from Sears. He began bottling in 2015 and distributing last July.
“When I first started I wanted to change people’s minds about what they thought a brandy should taste like,” says Andrus.
For years, brandy had the reputation of an overly sweet liquor made from low-end wine grapes.
“People thought of it as cheap,” says David Souza, founder of Sweet Potato Spirits in Atwater where Andrus makes his brandy. “But Ken is making people realize that if you spend the time and money, you can make some really good brandy – and that is what he has done.”
Andrus prides himself on the subtleties of his brandy. Using oak barrels, his first batch of brandy took on bourbon-esque flavor notes. He also has experimented with grape varieties. Each batch is a different combination of wine.
“My idea was to take the wine-tasting experience and carry into brandy,” he says. “If you like chardonnay, then you may like this brandy.”
Andrus also wants to create some mystique around his brandy by playing with different flavor profiles. “I don’t want to be known for duplicating the same recipe. I want you to look forward to what the next batch will taste like.”
Velvet Night is already gaining fans.
Carlos Moran, general manager at Cracked Pepper Bistro, one of Fresno’s top restaurants, appreciates the brandy’s sweet, caramel taste and its smoky, bourbonlike qualities.
Moran combines the brandy with lemon juice, orange liqueur, cherry liqueur and Angostura bitters. The drink is served chilled in a sugar-rimmed glass. Moran calls it Southern Jewel and he says customers have become fond of the summer drink.
“People are really enjoying it,” he says. “It has a great citrus taste that is very refreshing.”
If you have never tasted brandy, Andrus recommends sipping it, much like you would a bourbon or whiskey. He says to drink it neat, meaning without ice, so you can savor the flavors. Brandy also works well in drinks, like an old-fashioned or Manhattan.
“I am sitting on the shelf in stores with brandy that is $6.99 and I’m at $55 a bottle,” Andrus says. “So I want to give people something different, something they will remember.”
Velvet Night Brandy is sold at several Fresno retailers, including: The Market at Herndon and West avenues; Fig Tree Liquor and Wine, 1731 W. Bullard Ave.; and Elite Liquors, 7089 N. Marks Ave.
By Ken Andrus
1 ounce Velvet Night Brandy
1 1/2 ounce of fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 ounce of strawberry syrup
1 ounce Champagne or sparkling wine
Mix brandy, lemon juice and strawberry syrup in a shaker. Add ice and shake for 30 seconds to chill. Serve strained in a wine glass with ice, top with Champagne or sparkling wine, garnish with lemon round.
By Ken Andrus
3/4 ounce of Velvet Night Brandy
3/4 ounce of peach schnapps
1 ounce of orange juice
1/2 ounce of pineapple juice
1/2 ounce of cranberry juice
Building ingredients over ice in an old-fashioned glass. Garnish with an orange slice and pineapple wedge.
Brandy old fashioned
By Ken Andrus
1 orange slice
1 sugar cube
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 1/2 ounce Velvet Night Brandy
Muddle orange slice, sugar cube, cherry, and bitters with a dash of soda water in an old-fashioned glass. Top with brandy and stir.